Is It My Story? Or God’s Story?

We humans are quite the experts on the sin of selfishness. We want to be in the “driver’s seat” of our life. We want what we view as ours. In fact, we frequently want what we don’t have. Even something like Facebook is literally organized to feed into this egoism as we crave “likes” and try to present the best possible version of ourself to the world.

Our sermon yesterday on Philippians 4:13 touched on our selfish tendencies when it comes to reading the bible. We almost always try to place ourselves front and center in the story! Likewise, many Christians struggle with reading this “famous” Philippians verse through a self-centered lens. We are supposedly the important park of that verse, that I can do whatever I want. God is only an afterthought or a means to an end.

I preached that it matters greatly where we place the emphasis for Philippians 4:13…

I can do all things through Christ who gives ME strength.

Versus…

I can do all things through CHRIST who gives me strength.

Hopefully we can confidently proclaim and believe the second way of reading verse 13!


Now obviously, God can in fact give very personal messages. Hopefully we have all experienced that for ourselves, where God touches our individual life when we least expect it–whether that be the uplifting song playing on the radio, that seemingly random word of kindness from a friend, or the calming presence of the Holy Spirit during a time of stress.

But many times in our faith journey, we treat ourselves as the main character of the story. We want what God offers us, rather than pursuing God for God’s own sake. Too many times we struggle with reading the bible selfishly, only asking ourselves “What can I get out of this?

Personal enrichment can indeed be powerful. In the same breath, however, it is worth noting that we miss out on so much more if we never get beyond asking “What can I get out of this?

For starters, what about reading the bible to learn about God? Learning about God’s character can help us see how God loves the entire world!

What about reading scripture to educate ourselves? God gave us a mind to learn things and develop. Surely we can use it as we read the bible!

What about studying the bible to refine our walk as disciples, seeking to serve our neighbors in need? Instead of being self-centered, perhaps a better question to ask would be “What can I learn from the scriptures about loving other people?


Theologian Stanley Hauerwas explores this kind of idea:

For the truth is that since we are God’s good creation we are not free to choose our own stories. Freedom lies not in creating our lives, but in learning to recognize our lives as a gift. We do not receive our lives as though they were a gift, but rather our lives simply are a gift: we do not exist first and then receive from God a gift. The great magic of the Gospel is providing us with the skills to acknowledge our life, as created, without resentment and regret. Such skills must be embodied in a community of people across time, constituted by practices such as baptism, preaching, and the Eucharist, which become the means for us to discover God’s story for our lives.

In other words, we live out God’s story instead of our own.

As you study scripture, I would caution against being self-centered. In the big picture, we are participants in God’s story throughout history. Instead of me being the main character, obviously God should be!

And all this talk about stories and “main characters” naturally leads to another powerful idea. Since we are a part of God’s story, we ought to tell that story to others. You might recall a classic hymn we often sing in church that illustrates this point:

This message is so countercultural in our selfish sort of world. It goes against what we personally want. It goes against simply telling “my story” for boastful purposes. Yet as Christians, we are called to continually surrender our will and pursue God’s. We abandon our desires, and take on being Christlike. We hopefully toss aside our plan in favor of God’s perfect plan.

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A Foundation of Love

We’ve explored the metaphor of a house before to illustrate many ideas in Christianity. For instance, as United Methodists, we believe in something called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. We use the bible, church tradition, human reason, and our own experience to make sense of faith matters. (In a series a few years ago, I described this as having a “house” of faith, with the bible being the foundation, and so forth!).

We all know that how we build a physical house is important. A well-crafted one most certainly needs a solid foundation, or else it will cause problems in the future. I recall house-hunting several years ago and visiting a competitively-priced cottage in Little Rock. There were obvious foundation problems and the entire structure was slanted to one side. Even the kitchen cabinet doors wouldn’t stay closed! What we place at the bottom matters quite a bit.

Jesus himself also used a similar illustration with foundations, specifically in Matthew 5:24-27 with the teaching on the wise and foolish builders:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.

The important lesson to learn is to build one’s house on a solid foundation. Putting Jesus’ words into practice is like having a rock-solid foundation for your future. Trials and tribulations should not utterly destroy you as you stand firm.

We also sing about foundations, as noted by a classic hymn in our hymnals:

How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord,

is laid for your faith in his excellent Word!

What more can he say than to you he has said,

to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?


Broadly speaking, 1 Corinthians 13 also speaks of “foundational” matters—those things that matter most. Love, according to Paul and as we saw in our sermon yesterday, is the virtue that is most important. Consider what else he had to say about this character quality in verses 1-3:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Speaking in tongues, prophesying, and charity are certainly wonderful gifts. Yet without the love of God in our heart, these amount to absolutely nothing. The loveless tongue-speaker, prophet, or philanthropist all do it for show or the praise of other people. Without that foundation of love, we are nothing.

There is another hymn, “The Gift of Love”, that summarizes this important foundational idea:

Though I may speak with bravest fire,
And have the gift to all inspire,
And have not love, my words are vain,
As sounding brass, and hopeless gain.

Though I may give all I possess,
And striving so my love profess,
But not be given by love within,
The profit soon turns strangely thin.

Come, Spirit, come, our hearts control,
Our spirits long to be made whole.
Let inward love guide every deed;
By this we worship, and are freed.

Lessons from the Animal Kingdom

When we survey our surroundings, I believe it is clear we live in a neat world. There are so many natural wonders that can fill us with awe. Simply put, our world is finely-tuned for life. Creation itself points towards a creator.

God’s truth is often revealed to us in the wonders of creation. God created an orderly universe and we can see God’s “fingerprint” in nature. Also, this is not just limited to sunsets, big mountains, or far-off galaxies in the night sky. This absolutely includes animals, too.

I think there are some very insightful examples of God-given character qualities in the animal kingdom.

Sheep were the main illustration in my preaching yesterday. Despite their helplessness and unintelligence, we can learn quite a bit of how they act and relate it to our lives as disciples. We too are needy and not always smart. We need to know the voice of our “shepherd” and to follow God daily!

In addition to sheep, here are some other interesting examples of how animals can teach us about Godly character…


Resourcefulness/Thriftiness

We must always use God’s resources to the best of our ability, managing them wisely to give to others, and also planning for the future.

Koalas are very resourceful kinds of creatures. Koalas only eat eucalyptus leaves, which contain very little nutrients. They must conserve every bit of energy, so they move slowly and often nap most of the day. This is how they survive in the Australian wild. It can be very dry, so it is remarkable that koalas can even survive for years in such inhospitable environments!

Sea otters are also resourceful. Oftentimes they will dive to the ocean floor and find the perfect rock at the bottom of the ocean to use to crack open oysters. They hold this rock under a skin flap near their arms for future use. Otters will also protect their young and teach them how to swim so they can feed themselves, too.


Flexibility

God calls us to adapt to our surroundings, whether that be evangelizing to other people, or caring for loved ones during life’s challenging seasons.

Hummingbirds are the epitome of flexibility as they flap their wings extremely fast and are able to stay in the same position, move up, down, left, right, forward, or backward. They are able to fly right up to food sources that other birds have no chance of reaching.

Octopuses are flexible in more ways than one. They can contort their bodies to fit into very small spaces or squeeze through small cracks to hide from predators. Another flexible quality is that many can change colors. If they are at the bottom of a grey sea floor, they can turn grey and even texture themselves. If they are by a garden of coral and plants, they can match to look like just another rock in the sea with perfect camouflage.


Compassion/Love

There are almost too many examples to name, since so many animals will care for their young! One final example of “lessons from the animal kingdom” is a classic… the loyal dog.

Here’s a song by Wendy Francisco to illustrate:

Pastor’s Bookshelf: The Issue of Forgiveness

As a pastor I often receive questions about forgiveness and other people. We might have some vague idea of what forgiveness means, but many times we struggle with actually living a forgiving life. We find it difficult to let go of wrongdoings and avoid reconciling with offenders. I think of the following examples…

  • Someone says that we don’t always have to forgive, and that being unforgiving might be the best thing to do when someone is wronged.
  • An individual claiming he never has to ask for forgiveness. Apparently people can be perfect, despite obvious moral failings!
  • Another person saying to someone she’s wronged that you have to forgive me. Instead of changing her own heart, she uses this as an opportunity to take advantage of that person.

A book I read recently, The Name of God is Mercy by Pope Francis, dealt with the broad idea of forgiveness. In this rather short book, Francis recounts several impactful anecdotes from his ministry over the years. One story captures the theme of the book. When asked about confession and forgiveness during a conversation, an elderly parishioner responded to Francis that without forgiveness, our world would not exist. Indeed without God’s grace, we would not have much at all!

Francis talks about how church must be like a field hospital. We do not come to condemn people, but rather work so that individuals and communities come to know the grace of God. The same would be true for someone like an emergency medic or trauma surgeon in a war zone. Instead of blaming an injured car crash victim, soldier, civilian, or whoever it might be, that medical professional seeks to provide aid—no questions asked. Francis advocates for this understanding of church in our 21st century world. Other memorable quotes that stood out to me were:

  • “Mercy is the first attribute of God.”
  • “God does not want anyone to be lost. His mercy is infinitely greater than our sins.”
  • “God never tires of forgiving, it is we who get tired of asking him for forgiveness.”

To build on Pope Francis’ exploration on forgiveness, I find it helpful to outline the meaning of forgiveness through a simple, straightforward formula of sorts:

Forgiveness + Repentance = Reconciliation

When someone wrongs us, we are called to forgive them. That individual is called to repent. This produces reconciliation where we mend those broken bonds.

To explain this idea further, consider the following example I witnessed at the weekly prison ministry I do at the Tucker Unit.

A young man (we’ll call him Robert) grew up in an incredibly broken home. His father was abusive and did horrendous things to Robert and other family members. The abuse contributed to many issues Robert faced as an adult, and he began to act out by breaking the law. Robert is now serving several years in the state prison for crimes he committed.

Robert became a Christian and wants healing from this ordeal. As a follower of Christ, he knows he ought to forgive his father. The act of forgiveness allows Robert to “let go” of previous hurt and turn it over to God.

But for “full healing” to come, Robert’s father must also repent. To repent in the biblical sense means to make a 180-degree turn, moving away from unrighteousness to righteousness. Robert’s father must own up to his actions and seek God’s forgiveness in order to truly repent.

After forgiveness and repentance, then that relationship can begin to heal. Reconciliation is a nice word to describe this. Hopefully Robert’s family is put back together through this process.


Tragically, the story does not always have a happy ending. We’ve all likely faced instances of forgiveness where the offender refused to repent. In these cases where reconciliation doesn’t seem possible, I encourage you to still pray for the other person. Hopefully God can work in his or her life to bring about repentance and eventually reconciliation between the two of you. In the above story, I should mention that Robert’s father is still “lost.” But Robert has fortunately committed to praying for his wayward parent, that they might experience healing as a family.

We often “mess up” when it comes to forgiveness. We have ill-defined ideas of what it truly means. Likewise, many people refuse to forgive, falsely believing doing so will make them stronger or better off. On the contrary, we must believe that forgiveness is a crucial part of our faith. Remember what that elderly disciple once told Pope Francis: Without forgiveness, our world would not exist.

The Welfare of the City

We sometimes have tunnel vision with famous bible verses. This is certainly the case for Jeremiah 29:11. God certainly has a plan for us, but we frequently confuse our plan with God’s plan. The preceding verses to this well-known one offer great insight for what I will call our “public witness” as Christians.

For those who know my temperament and teaching style, you probably notice I rarely discuss controversial political issues. I shy away from these discussions because I simply believe that politics is one of the biggest idols in American culture. We worship the political process. In my own experience, the average person gets worked up more over a political issue they see on the nightly news, than a religious issue facing Christianity. Likewise, I don’t think many people consider themselves “Christian” in our culture as much as a “liberal” or “conservative.” You can see it in how they act. It deeply saddens me to see how angry people will get, ranting and raving on Facebook over an idea so trivial as taxes or demeaning a political opponent. (As a side note, I think I’ve “solved” this personal problem by not “hanging out” on social media that much. As they say, ignorance is bliss.)

But despite my conversational aversion to politics, there is an interesting point in Jeremiah 29 that I find convicting and insightful. God commands the Israelites to better the lives of those in their community (verse 7):

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Notice what Jeremiah doesn’t say in chapter 29. He never said to impose your values on others, forcing others to follow God. This is where I think many Christians mess up in the political arena. Instead, we must simply seek the best for others. If they benefit, we all benefit.

This is an important topic for Christians to grapple with. We should never be content serving our own needs. Instead, we ought to seek the betterment of society as a whole, regardless of whether people are Christian or not. We are called to live out our faith in public life. That includes how we invest our time, donate our money, vote in elections, and treat our neighbors. In the words of Jesus from Matthew 5:16, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

The Methodist tradition has a rich history of letting our light shine through our public witness. Many Methodists were involved in the abolitionist movement, fighting against the inhumane and evil practice of slavery. Methodists also helped with the temperance movement, noting the harms of abusing alcohol. Methodists have been involved in labor causes, promoting better working conditions and hours for those at the bottom of society. Methodists have also spoken out about funding programs for children, the elderly, and the disabled in our country.

I think our denomination’s approach to political issues is admirable. In our Social Principles we outline what the church teaches regarding many issues. I think we also “rise above” the noise and offer unique insight into highly controversial topics. An example of this would be abortion, which I’ve previously written about here.

You might be aware that there have been many prominent politicians from our denomination. George W. Bush and Elizabeth Warren are both Methodists. I think it is encouraging to see that there is enough diversity in the Methodist church to have two people on differing ends of the political spectrum. I’m sure if you talked with both, you would find a deep conviction that they want the best outcome for society.

I still think politics is a dicey issue. But my hope and prayer for my life and for other Christians is that we would always seek the welfare of the city. We do that through church missions. We do that through being welcoming of other people. We do that with how we behave in public. Jesus summarized this idea perfectly in Mark 12:29-31:

“The most important commandment,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second commandment is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

A Loving God

Our world often struggles with the idea that God is just plain angry. It is difficult to pinpoint the reasoning behind this troubling belief, so I’m not quite sure why so many believe it.

On one hand, in a few rare instances I’ve seen this literally preached from pulpits. Somehow, a pastor will ignore verses like 1 John 4:8 and say that God is angry with the sinfulness of the world. Fear definitely sells and captures attention, so I can see how Christian authors and pastors might be tempted to portray God as a wrathful being. We also sometimes focus on a handful of scripture passages, so I can also see how someone might pick and choose a couple of stories from scripture that might describe God as angry.

In college and seminary, we studied some ancient religions in class, and the belief that God (or the gods) are angry is quite common among these old belief systems. In ancient myths, divine figures seem moody, unpredictable, and downright nasty sorts of things. Perhaps we’ve never really gotten over these longstanding beliefs!

But in a broad sense, I think we can blame this predicament on our state at broken human beings. We don’t get along with one another. We are separated from God. To put it bluntly, we are sinners in need of salvation. Our sin also includes having broken views about who God is. I’ve witnessed so many people think that God is disappointed in them, that God just won’t forgive that one sin, or that God is too far away for them to receive any help.

As we saw in our sermon, John 3:16-17 is a wonderful foundation for what it means to be a Christian. It recognizes God’s love, the importance of Jesus on the cross, and the hope God offers us through salvation.

God is not angry with you. God offers forgiveness.

God does not seek to punish you. God wants to rescue you from sin.

God does not condemn the world. Instead, as John 3:17 points out, God sought to save the world.


One of the most famous theologians of the 20th century was a fellow named Karl Barth. I’ve referenced him occasionally in my sermons. He wrote a lot… So much so that in seminary, we only could read a couple of chapters from Church Dogmatics because it would take years to read the whole thing (over 6 million words!). The point is that he was extremely bright and thorough in his writing and reasoning.

There’s a story about him, however, that’s always stuck with me. When being interviewed one time, he was asked how to summarize everything he had written and believed about the Christian faith. His response was remarkably simple, “In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.'”

Sometimes the simplest things are the most difficult to remember. We overthink it because surely it could never be so straightforward. But despite all the confusion about who God is in our world, I firmly believe and have experienced that God is perfectly loving.

A Realistic Look at David

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King David is one of the most well-known characters of the bible. David and Goliath is a frequent topic for Vacation Bible School lessons. Many of the Psalms are attributed to him. He’s obviously an important character in a pivotal time of God’s work of salvation. I thought he was the most appropriate character to explore for the conclusion of our 1 & 2 Samuel series.

So David’s rather important. Many might even consider him to be one of the biggest heroes of scripture.

One temptation we have when reading the bible is to glorify so-called “heroes” without examining their brokenness. I think David is a perfect example of this temptation that Christians often struggle with. We love to imagine David conquering his foes and being an incredible leader. We don’t always think about all the times he messed up. We gloss over uncomfortable moments of the story in favor of overly positive interpretations.

I would argue that this “rose-colored glasses” temptation has practical, everyday implications for how we treat sinfulness now. Do we always call out sin? Or do we ignore it, especially if we have an affinity for the person who has sinned? Whether it is family members, close friends, political affiliations, favorite athletes, or community groups, chances are we idealize those allied with us rather than being honest about wrongdoing.

David and Bathsheba is an obvious example of David’s sinfulness that we briefly discussed during the sermon. In some readings and interpretations of this story, it is arguable that David actually raped Bathsheba, since she had utterly no voice or say in the story. She was a victim of a powerful man who demanded to have his way while refusing to face consequences for quite some time. This is certainly a dark story of scripture filled with lies, lust, violence, and a coverup.

David also clearly struggled with sinfulness in other chapters, too. We would like to think of David as the “good guy” in Israel’s civil war and Saul as the “bad guy.” But in the midst of fighting, David actually sides with the pagan Philistines to harm his fellow Israelites. He essentially acted as a traitor against his own people. Even though many assume that “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” and “All’s fair in love in war,” I am greatly troubled by David’s actions before taking the throne.

David’s last recorded words in 1 Kings 2:9 are actually a command of revenge to punish an old enemy: “But now, do not consider him innocent. You are a man of wisdom; you will know what to do to him. Bring his gray head down to the grave in blood.” This paints a dark picture for the kind of fellow David often was. Perhaps he also struggled with unforgiveness and holding onto grudges.

Now I don’t bring up this topic to “spoil” the stories of David for anyone. There are many great examples David gives us of what it means to be righteous. I hope I highlighted just a few for the sermon–Be a person after God’s own heart, be bold, and repent when you do wrong.

But in reading scripture, we have to be honest about how we view biblical characters. No matter how “good” we think them to be, they all still struggled with sin… even great King David.

If you ask me, there’s only one true “hero” in all of scripture: Jesus. He’s the perfect example of Godly character. He’s the best possible character to imitate in our life today. All other figures in scripture fall short. Never forget that as you read about people in the bible.

Yet despite his sinfulness, David still gives me hope. Even though we read about the many times he struggled and messed up, God was still faithful to a covenant with humanity. God had a plan for David. So if God could use someone like David, surely God can use us today, too.

The Example of Others

Ethics is the study of right and wrong. This might sound like a complicated sort of word, but it is deeply practical, and you likely already have an idea of what it means. To say that someone is an “ethical” sort of person means that she or he is morally righteous. That “ethical” individual is admirable. People look up to that person, following his or her actions. We all have personal examples of people we look up to who have showed us what righteousness looks like. Maybe you had a grandfather who was incredibly patient and rarely lost his temper. Maybe a mother was always affirming with her words and never used them to cut other people down. Or perhaps you had a teacher who took extra time to make sure everyone else succeeded.

Without getting too abstract, there are a few ways people actually define ethics. This is a topic that sure keeps theologians and philosophers busy! Some argue we need to have really good rules and laws to ensure other people behave morally. Others argue that “the ends justify the means” and believe that ethics ought to be about some end result, instead of playing by the rules. Even others will argue that ethics is something humans create entirely.

My personal view of ethics is somewhat different than following the rules or planning for the best outcome. Ethics ought to be about virtues, that is, good qualities we hope to instill in our lives. Virtues include things like honesty, integrity, courage, compassion, and so forth. I believe that one of the best ways to teach someone about right and wrong is to share stories about people who either live out or fail to achieve a moral life.

(You can probably tell I’m a fan of this view from the children’s sermon in church with the tale of the tortoise and the hare… Fables are absolutely wonderful ways to teach people—both young and old—about what it means to do right!)

This week’s sermon on Saul addressed this issue of ethics. Saul clearly comes out to be an unethical sort of fellow. He doesn’t do the Lord’s will. He gets jealous of Jonathan and David’s friendship. He rejects God’s word. He even consults witchcraft. And finally, he harms his own body. All throughout 1 Samuel when Saul steps on the scene, we find mistake after mistake, compounded for the worse by the fact that Saul refused to repent.

As I preached, I noted that Saul provides a fantastic example of what not to do. Don’t be like Saul. Don’t reject God’s word. Don’t shy away from true Godliness. I think reading these kinds of stories can truly impact someone, simply because they provide extremely practical examples of what it means to be an ethical person. Yes, rules can be important, but I find that reading powerful, engaging stories about right versus wrong can have a much greater impact.

This week, I encourage you to think back on other examples of ethical people in your life, and follow their example. Be like that grandparent who was truly understanding. Be like that neighbor who would always show compassion, regardless of whoever needed help.

And the ultimate example of morality for our lives ought to be Jesus Christ himself. He is the clearest source of what is truly right, and we ought to imitate his life. Philippians 2:1-5 puts it this way:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus

Is It God Speaking? Or Me?

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The basic definition of a prophet from a biblical perspective is someone who is a mouthpiece for God. She or he relays some sort of message to other people. In the bible, prophets often offered social critiques, divine messages, moral reminders, and descriptions of what is happening in the “cosmic realm.” The prophet communicates something from God.

Easy enough, right?

Well, as always, we humans tend to make things more complicated than they ought to be!

Who is doing the talking? Is the self-proclaimed prophet communicating on behalf of God? Or are they conveying something else?

To illustrate this problem, I recall hearing an example from the early 1900s in the Houston area from a young, bold Methodist preacher. One year he went to his District Superintendent, claiming that God himself told the young man he ought to serve St. John’s Methodist Church in Houston. St. John’s was one of the biggest and wealthiest congregations of the conference. The appointment came with a substantial pay raise. St. John’s was also so well off that they even gave their minister a car allowance! The DS was shocked at this young preacher’s audacity to demand such a thing, but he held his tongue and simply responded with, “Well, let’s pray about it and we’ll see where God is leading you.” A couple of months later the young pastor got a letter that he would indeed be serving St. John’s church… but the St. John’s he would be appointed to was a couple hundred miles away from the big city in the middle of nowhere!

Not every feeling or thought we have is from the Lord. It can be quite complicated and unclear.

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Here is a simple, threefold set of “test questions” to help you examine whether it is God speaking, versus some other desire. I would encourage you to wrestle with this as you communicate with God and discern what to do. Ask yourself the following…

1. “Is it God speaking? Or me?”

Too many times we rush to follow our emotions and thoughts without examining them in the first place. When someone insults us, we insult them back. When someone is negative, we pick up that tone and also see the world through a pessimistic lens. And when deciding what to do, we tend to follow our gut without question. We do the speaking most of the time.

So ask yourself whether God is leading you in the first place. Chances are, if you begin with this simple question–is it God speaking or me?–then that will set you up to follow God’s will in your life. You’ll become more aware of what God might sound like, instead of going with whatever pops into your mind.

2. “Does this line up with Christianity?”

Does your supposed nudging from God line up with the bible? Or is it contradictory? If you claim God is doing something opposite of the core tenets of our faith, that is clearly not God talking. While this might sound obvious, it is worth reiterating. God clearly wants us to follow him and be like Jesus. If you feel the desire or urge to act otherwise, be sure and know that whatever you feel is not from God.

God does not want you to kill or harm other people. God does not want you to sin. God does not want you to worship money. God does not want you to spend all your savings on lottery tickets. God does not want you to behave like a non-Christian. To claim otherwise in any of these instances really goes against the broad Christian tradition. When God speaks to you, I would argue that it ought to be consistent with the message of Christianity.

3. “Who is benefitting from this?”

Ask yourself about the benefits of a proposed course of action. If you are getting all the fame, honor, and glory, then I would challenge you to really think about if it is truly God speaking. I would venture to say it might be our own selfish desire if that is the case!

When God leads us to do something, it often is uncomfortable, difficult, or otherwise challenging. “Godly” success does not look like “worldly” success. But with God’s help, we can accept God’s calling and eagerly respond to serve the kingdom.

The Parenting Blame Game

Scripture obviously ought to be a guiding tool for our life. In reading the stories of the bible, we learn about who God is, what God has done, and what God will do. In many ways, scripture provides the “answer” to questions we might have. You’ve probably heard this terminology used before!

But one odd thing about our bible is that it doesn’t always give us specific answers. For instance, do we know everything that is going on in the mind of a character? Do we always know the backstory? Do we fully know someone’s intentions?

Some people take issue with ambiguity, but if you ask me, this is one reason I find the bible so fascinating! We must truly study it in order to glean lessons from stories like those from 1 Samuel.

With that said, Eli is one of those characters where we don’t exactly have clearcut answers. Was he a great father? Did he utterly fail? To be honest, it’s unclear. To recap this character from the beginning of the book:

  • Eli is the high priest of Israel in Shiloh. People come there yearly to make sacrifices. Eli assures Hannah she will have a son.
  • Eli had two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. They were bad dudes. The bible calls them “scoundrels” and states they had no regard for the Lord. These two troubled sons took advantage of people in grotesque and corrupt ways. Eli confronts the sinful sons and warns them of God’s judgment. They don’t listen.
  • Eli mentors Samuel over the years, giving Israel its first prophet. Samuel realizes God is calling him in the middle of the night, thanks to Eli’s advice.
  • Samuel prophesies the house of Eli will be destroyed for the sins of the sons. In some readings, it is not clear if Eli himself also will be cursed, too, or if his offspring simply bear the brunt of the impending doom. The sons die in battle and after Eli finds out, he falls over, breaking his neck and dies, too.
  • It is unclear as to whether future generations suffered more from a divine “curse.” Some of Eli’s ancestors die young. But some biblical traditions state that people like Jeremiah and Ezekiel and descendants of this family line. So it seems to me as though Eli’s history is not entirely hopeless or corrupt.

Some bible commentators and pastors criticize Eli and essentially blame him for the actions of his sons. By extension, the same people might blame parents of lost children today. You’ve heard phrases like these before…

  • Eli should have done more.” And today, “That parent should have done more.”
  • “That child must have learned it from the mother/father.”
  • “Some kids just weren’t raised right.”
  • “Well they clearly failed at parenting.”

So who is exactly to blame when children turn away from God?

I’ll be the first to admit this is an incredibly dicey issue. For starters, I don’t have children yet and don’t know what it’s like to parent. I also realize it is easy to judge others and put people down without truly understanding a family’s situation. We so often want an explanation for why someone turned out “bad” that we rush to judge the parent almost immediately. We often forget that every individual must make the choice for him or herself on whether to follow Jesus or not. Children turn into youth, and eventually turn into adults. We gradually take ownership of our lives and make impactful decisions through free will.

I know many parents–and yes, even pastors–who did everything “right” yet still struggled with wayward children. What’s a parent to do when she or he earnestly follows God, yet witnesses children turn away from faith?

Despite my lack of experience in the parenting arena, I feel confident in my beliefs on this matter. Rather than playing the “blame game” about lost and rebellious children, I think God calls us to something different. It is easy to point fingers and wash our own hands, but I don’t think we ought to be doing much blame in the first place. We need more understanding and compassion instead of condemnation and judgment.

In the future, it might be worth considering past mistakes and asking God for healing where someone may have failed as a parent. But in the midst of trauma, the blame game doesn’t help at all.

Your friend who is dealing with a struggling family member doesn’t need to be shamed or scolded. For now, they need prayer, help, and support. They need to know that they are not alone, and that you can be a Christian friend to them during their hour of need.